Traveller Home Guatemala

23rd February 2003, Antigua, Guatemala --

Got laid off again and since I had a drawer full of plane tickets I decided to book a quick journey to Guatemala. I asked my husband, if I could go to Nepal but he said no because he wants to go there too. I only could take one week so I decided to split the time between Antigua in the south of the country, and easily accessible from the airport, and the the remainder of the week at the Mayan ruins of Tikal in the jungles to the north.

I took the overnight flight from Los Angeles to Guatemala City and somehow got upgraded to first class along the way. I think it was the flirting with the agent in the LA lounge. Sat down and washed back half a sleeping pill with two rums and five hours later (10 minutes in my time) I landed in Guatemala City.

It was 5:30 a.m. so the airport was very quiet and I was met by my driver who would take me to Antigua. We drove for forty five minutes and my first impressions were that Guatemala's not totally third world like India, but rather an emerging economy with thirs world relics and processes that are evolving.

Antigua is a colonial city which the Spanish used as the ruling seat of power of the Latin American empire. Thanks to the United Nation's UNESCO protection the city is well preserved with cobblestone streets, each building painted a different color and great touches like all of the traffic signs being made of painted tiles set into the sides of buildings. I was dropped off outside the hotel I'd hoped to stay, but they were full and US$91 is a bit steep for this part of the world. I put on my backpack and began to walk the early morning empty streets.

The city sits on a small plateau at the base of two huge volcanos. One of the first things I noticed that morning was the smaller of the two smoking with a plume of steam rising from its cone. I turned around and was astounded by the sheer magnitude of Volcan Agua - the 3700 meter high volcano that sits along the southern base of the city. I walked across town and got a room at the El Antonio Posada on 6e Ave Nord. US$45 a night for a fantastic room tastefully decorated with fireplace, plus the hotel had a roof deck with great views across the city.

25th February 2003, Tikal Jungles, Guatemala --

Left Antigua this morning for the airport to fly one hour north to the jungles and Mayan ruins of Tikal. Got to the Guatemala City airport and the military had blocked the main entrance roads so I had to walk to the airport. Upon arriving, the airport had a demonstration blocking the main road and all access points into the airport. I didn't understand why, so I just followed the Guatemalan man with the largest suitcase in tow while he made his way through the crowd to the terminal. Pulled out my Irish passport to have it checked my the military guarding the main entrance and finally made it inside. My reservation had been cancelled by the airline so I talked my way to become a standby passenger, and eventually made it onto the plane.

When the plane landed the first thing I noticed was that the airport was swarming with military guards all dressed in green fatigues. I met the shuttle from the Jungle Lodge, along with this young Mexican newlywed couple and they told me what was going on. There was a teachers strike and they had successfully blocked all overland routed into the country and closed all border crossings. They had also taken over an oil pumping station and tried to block all airports, hence the demonstration in Guatemala City. The Mexicans explained that the "airport" we'd arrived at was actually the military base in Peten, and not Flores because the Flores airport had been successfully closed. Will have to find out what the teachers want.

26th February 2003, Tikal, Guatemala --

Met a guide today who explained the teachers want more money and the government to respect them and invest in the educational system. He, a Guatemalan and another man, said that elections were coming and then their horrible president would be thrown out.

Woke up at 6:00 a.m. just as it was beginning to get light and quickly got dressed to head over to the ruins for sunrise. I was more interested in seeing the jungle come alive than the rising. I hurried out the door into the morning jungle mist and made my way to the Grand Plaza of Tikal. The Grand Plaza is the center of the complex with towering temples on either end of the fifty meter grassy plaza. Along either side there are tiers which hold the ruins of the residential and administration buildings of the old city.

I climbed to the top of temple II, the only one you can on this plaza, so I was about even with the tree top canopy surrounding the site. The noise alone was magnificent. The calls and squaks of so many birds was intense. I saw three different types of toucans - black with a yellow chest and bright yellow beak, black with an orange beak, and a series of six with orange striped beaks and red bums, this group which nearly buzzed me flying overhead across the temple. The yellow beaked toucans liked to sit three trees apart and call to each other with a sound of clicks that was more like tree frogs than a bird.

Scores of parrots filled the sky and nearby trees, squaking loudly while trying to knock the other off the tree branch. On the tree nearest me was a group of about nine of what looked like a type of myna bird with orange beaks, brown body and tails with white and yellow outlines. These birds had the call that by far was the loundest in the jungle. The call was about four distinct tones, each getting louder to the end. It really was the quinticential bird call you'd expect to hear in the jungle. This particular group were all perched on the same branch which was bowing with their weight. One had decided to start building a nest, so when it returned and landed with a thud on the branch the rest of the group would make a noise similar to a whine like they were annoyed with the nest building of the industrious one. I was standing on the corner of the temple watching these birds when the working one took off to go and find some more building material and flew so close to me I could have touched it.

The longer I sat on the temple it seemed like the more birds made themselves known. Each time I was about to change positions a new bird appeared. First a couple of yellow birds, then three green, blue and red parrots, followed by a crow sized brown bird with a white belly who was foraging for food by hopping around me atop the temple. As the sun got higher the mist pushed down into the main plaza of the temple complex making the tower opposite look even more mysterious through the mist. The sun finally cut through the mist, lighting up the tree tops, making the brightly colored birds shine even brighter. With the sun also came the tourists - the top of the temple that had been my own now had a half dozen, and growing, number of folk on it. I climbed down and made my way back to the Jungle Lodge for breakfast before meeting my guide for my official tour starting at 9:00 a.m.

Carlos met us at nine and our group of me, a couple from Seattle and a woman from Tokyo started off into the jungle again to see the ruins. Our guide had actually worked with the archaeologists on Temple IV in the eighties and had led a series of professors through the site over the years, so he was well versed in history, flora and fauna. One of the most interesting points he brought up was the questions of why the Mayans chose the specific location of Tikal for the temples. There are no rivers or streams nearby and no natural water source. Why here? What they figured out was that the Mayans had looked for the highest point in the jungle, levelled off the hill and built the temples so they could study the stars from this high vantage point. All the temples are aligned along the twenty second parallel (I think) with other buildings placed in their spots with precision and reason.

One other antecdote that came up was that on the north side of the Grand Plaza, just at the base of the main stairs, there sits one of those headstone looking rocks with a second, circular stone lying on it's side in front of it. Carlos said that this point in the complex has perfect magnetism. I asked him what he meant and he responded he'd brought a metal pendulum on a string to the site and only when he holds it directly over the circular stone here does it point straight to the ground. It means if you move the string the pendulum points to the same spot. I'll have to try that when I bring Reynald here.

[Insert 27 Feb]

28th February 2003, Flores - Santa Elena, Guatemala --

Staying in the island city of Flores which is really pretty and more my speed than Antigua. It city is surrounded by the waters of Lago de Peten Itza and connected by a causeway to Santa Elena, the largest ctown on the lake. It's only been seven days travelling but I've already switched over to the "I have one thing to do today" mode, and even getting that done in one day can be hard. Today I had to go to find the Tivoli travel agent in Santa Elena to reconfirm my flight out tomorrow. The country's about ready to implode with the teachers strike being the first step over the abyss.

The day after I crossed the strike lines to fly out to La Aurora airport in Guatemala City the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Guatemala stating to watch local newspapers to assess the situation in your area. It continued by saying that travel in the country was becoming extraordinarily difficult. Apparently United Airlines has been cancelling their daily flights and transferring passengers to American and Continental where possible - both of those airlines had also been cancelling flights. The situation calmed today and the teachers, who had been occupying not only the airports but oil pumping stations as well stepped down for the moment but are still negotiating with the government.

Today's paper said that thousands of teachers have been marching to the capital city and are expected to arrive today. Monday March 3rd there is another strike planned and with these reinforcements I imagine it won't be as porus as the first sttempt. Tomorrow (March 1st) I'm slated to fly, but have created contigency plans for Guatemala City just in case.

Yet I digress - this morning it rained and then had cloud cover protecting us from the searing heat until about noon. I took this pooprtunity to walk the five hundred meters over the lake's causeway to Santa Elena to try to find this travel agent. Santa Elena is like so many of the unremarkable hot, dusty third world cities you come across over many years of travel. It's more like the type of place you'd take your bus for repairs, if you had one. In addition to more auto mechanics, farmacia and hardware stores you could shake a stick at, it has the notable exception of hosting three bus stations, each a block away from the other. If you've ever spent any time around third world bus stations, they're a whole bunch of no fun with hulking diesel spewing buses driving at breakneck speeds in an attempt to clear the pedestrian clogged streets. Small rickety food stalls line the gutter, with the occasional splash from the tire of a particularly heavy delivery truck. It was through this paradise of a town I was to find the Tivoli travel agent.

I had an address. I had an address, but in developing countries you quickly learn that an address of "4a Calle 0-45" doesn't even mean anything to the people that live on 4a Calle! I made my way down the street, dodging buses, cars and bikes since I was the smallest thing on the road. Even the ever-present third world dog, Mange, knows not to walk in the streets unless, of course, he has rabies in which case he gets bumped up the chain above humans. I kept checking office buildings and looking for street numbers and after the fifth block in the one hunfred degree heat I asked someone if I was going the right direction. Thankfully he could confirm it was - just a bit further down past the military barracks. Got my seat confirmed, and with that done headed back across the causeway to Flores.

Had a long walk through town which is painted in a series of pastels similar to Antigua and many other colonial Latin American towns. With the cloud cover it acted as a softener and diffuser for the light (like holding up a piece of paper) and the colors of the buildings were just popping out. I shot a whole roll of film of various doorways, windows, some people until the sun came out. When the coulds cleared the temperature rose quickly to over one hundred and six degrees. One of the Flores residents said it was one of the hottest days they'd had in twelve months.

I sat in a cafe sipping Gallo, the national beer, for a few hours then hired one of the local boatsmen for a one hour tour around the lake and its islands. This lake is so beautiful and very clean too. You get the azure blue and green colors of the water with the sand and plants clearly visible on the bottom - rather like the Caribbean sea. After what I thought had been about twenty minutes we had circumnavigated Flores island and were back at the dock - just as negociated for sixty quetzals. Passed the better part of the afternoon reading and drinking in the lakeside cafe of the Hotel Santana. Finally watched the sun set across the lake. It was still hotter than hell so went to Cafe Luna, a funky cool bar and restaurant and sat at the bar testing the series of Guatemalan rums they had. Guatemalan rum runs a close second to the delicious rums of Cuba.

1st March 2003, Leaving Guatemala --

Up early before dawn and opened the two doors of my lake view room to hear the birds and feel the wind coming off the lake. I finished packing my bag then headed to the hotel's roof to check out the sunrise over the lake. Totally clear and beautiful as all of them have been on this trip. Got my transfer to the airport, which was still open, and bumped into the Mexican couple I'd seen throughout this half of the journey - Juan Pablo and Anne. We sat and talked then had an uneventful flight to Guatemala City. They headed into town for the final night of their honeymoon while I walked to the upper level of the airport and checked in for my San Francisco flight home.

I still had 13.50 quetzals in my pocket so I started to wander the airport for food. I did have three hours to kill before the flight so I headed outside where it wasn't so hot and there was a nice breeze blowing. Unlike most international airports, La Aurora sits right on one of the main city streets of the capital. I walked across the street where a few food stalls sat and worked out I could get either carne (meat) or sausages with corn tortillas for Q7.00. After negotiating a bit with the couple who ran the stall we agreed I could have two portions for all the quetzals in my pocket.

Such a great way to exit the country: sitting in the shade of an outdoor food stall talking borken Spanish to the other Guatemalans sharing my small table with me. I can only hope the government has some vision and begins to grant some of the teachers' demands. Monday is their next major strike and it might very well be the spark that begins new change. Just hope for the best for this beautiful country.

Other notes not to forget:

In one of the Tikal comedors (restaurants) I had an interesting tactile experience in my mouth while eating my chicken sandwich. I immediately heard Melinda's voice saying, "Don't look at your food - just eat it or you won't eat." Finished my meal without thinking about it again

Dinner at the Jungle Lodge had the excitement of a small cockroach walking across my table top during my meal. I didn't bother to mention this to the table of six elderly French next to me.

The minute I hit the jungle region it was so hot that peeing became all but a memory. Just ended up sweating all the water out.

In most of the towns one can hear the incessent ringing of the little bells of the helados (ice cream) salesmen pushing their carts through the street, just like the Latino population of San Francisco does.

Met a woman in Antigua who is a maple syrup farmer from Nova Scotia, who also worked directly with Jane Goodall in Tanzania in the 60s.

US$1.00 = Q7.80 (quetzals)